Pure Creative Joy


It was 1973, and Dan Lynch had recently started a new job as manager of the computer laboratory for the Artificial Intelligence Group at SRI. He was charged with getting all kinds of weird peripherals—robots, lasers, oddball equipment—to talk to each other and to the lab's computers.

One day, he recalls, "I found myself in my office looking at Shakey the Robot (the first robot) firmly blocking my exit. One of the researchers had programmed it to do that, and sat smirking outside my door. I had to figure out how to control Shakey right then and there to get it to move aside (and not take a wall out!). That was fun."

Fun is a word you hear a lot from Lynch, who's now chairman of CyberCash. Majoring in math was "fun." Debugging TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) without pay as a favor to a friend was "fun." Coordinating 200 programmers around the country to turn the old Arpanet into the Internet was "fun."

Fun is not, however, a word that comes up often when sociologists and political types discuss what makes capitalism tick. They say things like, "The bourgeois economic impulse was organized into a highly restrictive character structure whose energies were channeled into the production of goods and into a set of attitudes toward work that feared instinct, spontaneity, and vagrant impulse."

That's Daniel Bell in his 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Bell argued that the pursuit of happiness engendered by a free-market economy would destroy the thrifty, disciplined, hard-working Puritan character on which capitalism depends. The result, wrote Bell, was pure hedonism, and "nothing epitomized the hedonism of the United States better than the State of California." Bell's influence on intellectuals of both the right and the left can hardly be overstated. And his argument informs much of what Washington policymakers say about the market economy—from Bill Clinton's paeans to people who "work hard and play by the rules," to Bill Bennett's attacks on popular culture, to the bipartisan consensus that the Internet must be brought under control.

Bell was, however, wrong, or at least incomplete. He confused the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of sensation and left out the creative, productive role of play. He saw the California of hot tubs and casual sex (this was the '70s) but ignored the Silicon Valley and Hollywood that worked practically round-the-clock. He both embraced and condemned the bureaucratic Organization Man but couldn't imagine that a dynamic culture would find a more interesting, more productive, but non-Puritan, substitute.

Needless to say, there are no personal computers—and certainly no Internet or robot pranks—in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The personal computer, as Stewart Brand puts it, "is the one thing the hippies got right." To my younger, economically pressured and career-oriented generation, the children of the '60s looked like perpetual adolescents, unwilling to go to class, get jobs, accept limits. But, injected into a marketplace always looking for new sources of happiness, their playfulness created amazing new industries.

Play, notes Brand, provides "a place where we try stuff." It teaches us to generate new ideas and cope with new situations. And, I'd argue, its balance of rules and improvisation encourages exactly the mental skills needed to adapt to a dynamic culture and economy. Speaking in purely economic terms, play will always dominate work, because people will play for free. It's a great source of startup capital, and a way to help voluntarily finance "public goods," like all those Internet projects Dan Lynch worked on.

Obviously, discipline matters too, and completing projects often means sticking to them after the fun has run out. But playful work provides a source of joy amid what economic historian Joel Mokyr characterizes as "living in a hectic and nerve-racking world in which producers have to run to stay in place and constantly spend effort and resources on searching for improvements." In such a world, he worries, stressed-out business people will lobby government to block technological progress. Maybe not, however, if they're busy having fun.

With their fixation on the Puritan model of bourgeois life, the aristocratic intellectuals who dominate our political debate miss both the risk-taking and the fun that drive entrepreneurial capitalism. That doesn't lessen their influence. But it ought to.

This article originally appeared in the April 8, 1996 issue of Forbes ASAP.